GLENDALE, Ariz. - The Arizona Cardinals have consecutive home playoff victories—61 years apart.
Kurt Warner opened with a 42-yard touchdown pass to Larry Fitzgerald and connected with Anquan Boldin on a 71-yard scoring play as the Cardinals beat Atlanta 30-24 Saturday before a raucous, towel-waving crowd.
Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank paces the sidelines in the closing moments of his team's loss to the Arizona Cardinals in the fourth quarter of an NFL wild-card playoff football game on Saturday, Jan. 3, 2009 in Glendale, Ariz. The Cardinals defeated the Falcons 30-24. (AP)
It was the franchise’s first home playoff game since the then-Chicago Cardinals beat Philadelphia to win the NFL championship in 1947.
“A lot of people coming into this game said we were the worst playoff team ever to get in,” Arizona coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “… I think we rallied around that.”
Atlanta rookie Matt Ryan was intercepted twice, was tackled in the end zone for a safety and fumbled the ball away on a botched handoff. That fumble was returned 27 yards by Antrel Rolle 52 seconds into the second half to put Arizona ahead for good.
Everyone knew the Cardinals could pass, but a stout defense and effective running game were a bonus.
“You have to really give credit first to their defense,” Falcons guard Harvey Dahl said. “They did an outstanding job. They were flying all over the place.”
Atlanta’s 60 yards rushing represented a season low.
“We couldn’t run the ball,” Falcons wide receiver Roddy White said. “We had to throw it around a little bit more than we’re used to. Things like that kind of put us behind the 8-ball.”
Arizona’s Edgerrin James outgained Atlanta’s Michael Turner, the NFL’s No. 2 rusher.
“They controlled the line of scrimmage,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said of the Cardinals’ defense.
James, who has made it known he will not be back with the Cardinals next season, carried 16 times for 73 yards. Turner, who rushed for 1,699 yards in the regular season, had 42 yards in 18 attempts.
Warner, in the playoffs for the first time since leading St. Louis to a second Super Bowl in 2001, was 19-of-32, 13-for-17 in the second half, for 271 yards. He was intercepted once.
“I hope this gives us a lot of confidence,” Warner said. “I knew we thought we could win this game. Hopefully we can parlay this into some more confidence and know we can win wherever we have to go.”
Arizona will play at either the New York Giants or Carolina Panthers next weekend. Arizona has played both teams this season, losing 27-23 at Carolina on Oct. 26, and 37-29 at home to the Giants on Nov. 23.
Ryan, the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year, completed 26 of 40 passes for 199 yards and two scores.
“I think you have to remember what we did as a team this year and we did some things well,” Ryan said. “We made some strides as a team as the year went on. But you have to use this as motivation. You don’t want to be here.”
The Cardinals went 9-7 to win a weak NFC West and make the playoffs for the first time in a decade. After clinching the division, they were blown out by Minnesota and New England in the two weeks preceding their regular-season finale victory over Seattle.
Atlanta (11-5) finished a game behind Carolina in the tough NFC South and came in a winner of five of its last six. But from the start Arizona showed that, at least on this afternoon, it belonged in the postseason.
“A lot of people in Atlanta were giving us no chance,” Arizona safety Adrian Wilson said. “There was a lot of talk in the paper from them about how it was a blessing for them to come out here—but it’s not sweet out here.”
Antonio Smith’s tackle of Ryan for a safety put Arizona ahead 30-17 with 12:37 to play.
The Falcons, who rebounded from a 4-12 season to make the playoffs, made it close after that. On fourth-and-6, Ryan connected with Jerious Norwood for 28 yards to Cardinals 26. That led to Ryan’s 5-yard scoring pass to Roddy White that cut it to 30-24 with 4:15 left.
But Warner completed passes to Fitzgerald, Steve Breaston and Stephen Spach, then the Cardinals ran out the clock.
When it was over, Whisenhunt ran along the front row of the stadium, exchanging high-fives with fans. The Cardinals didn’t sell out the game until Friday, but the throng was loud and boisterous throughout.
Ryan’s first pass of the playoffs was intercepted by Ralph Brown, leading to Warner’s 42-yard TD to Fitzgerald on a flea-flicker. Early in the second quarter, Warner threw short to Boldin, who beat safety Lawyer Milloy and ran down the sideline on a 71-yard scoring play.
Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith, left, argues with line judge Ron Marinucci in the fourth quarter of an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday, Jan. 3, 2009 in Glendale, Ariz. The Cardinals defeated the Falcons 30-24. (AP)
Boldin hurt his left hamstring on the play. He played the next series, then left for good.
Atlanta scored twice in the final 2:55 to take a 17-14 halftime, then got the ball on the second-half kickoff.
Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett was the disruptive force on the crucial fumble.
“I just jumped the snap count, man,” he said. “I needed to make a play. We needed a spark. We were down and that was the play that turned this whole thing around.”
Dockett hit Turner just as Ryan was trying to hand off the ball. The ball bounced off Turner’s forearm and into the hands of Rolle, who raced to the end zone.
The Cardinals mustered their first extended drive of the game later in the third quarter. Moving the ball with James’ running and Warner’s short passes, Arizona used up 7:43, going 76 yards in 14 plays. Warner’s 14-yard pass to Breaston on third-and-3 set up Tim Hightower’s 4-yard run that made it 28-17.
The Falcons had the ball for 21:19 in the first half, the Cardinals had it for 21:21 in the second. … It was a nice day outside but the Cardinals kept the roof closed at University of Phoenix Stadium. The stadium is far louder with the roof closed. … Each team was without a starting defensive end because of injuries, Jamaal Anderson for Atlanta and Travis LaBoy for Arizona. … Arizona is 13-4 at home since Whisenhunt became coach.